The best way to teach reading is proven — What Mississippi, Colorado get right

By
Learn more about Anne Wicks.
Anne Wicks
Don Evans Family Managing Director, Opportunity and Democracy
George W. Bush Institute
Learn more about William McKenzie.
William McKenzie
Senior Editorial Advisor
George W. Bush Institute

Texas, and other states, can be poised to make an incredible impact on their young people if they can effectively implement the science of reading.

This is the second piece in a two-part series that tracks Texas’ attempts to adopt the science of reading over 25 years. The lessons learned in this series are relevant to the many states who have adopted — or are attempting to adopt — the science of reading in schools. Read the first piece here.

Texas lawmakers passed a measure at the end of their regular 2023 session that helped move the state forward in its effort to improve reading outcomes. HB 1605 includes several elements, including creating a process and incentives for districts to purchase high quality instructional materials approved by the State Board of Education. Importantly, it also bans the use of three-cueing, an ineffective instructional practice commonly used in balanced literacy that teaches young readers to rely on visual and meaning cues to guess a word.

Research tells us that early readers need, instead, to learn how letters and sounds work together to create words. Thanks to HB 1605, three-cueing can no longer be used in classrooms or taught in teacher preparation programs, an incremental step toward improving reading outcomes.

The word “incremental” is key here. Texas policymakers have been trying to improve reading rates for decades, from 1996’s Texas Reading Initiative, and 2019’s HB 3, which created “Reading Academies” to train teachers and principals. But Texas has not had the single-minded focus that states like Mississippi have used to improve reading outcomes for all students.

What’s more, Texas legislators missed an opportunity this spring to approve a deeper overhaul of reading instruction in Texas classrooms. Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, proposed legislation that would have required schools and districts to teach reading based on the five elements of the science of reading. The bill stalled during the session, but one element survived in HB 1605— a ban on three-cueing, a reading instruction method that encourages students to rely on context clues like repetitive sentence patterns, the first letter of a word, and pictures as they learn to read.

As Texas legislators look forward to the 2025 session, they have an opportunity to create a comprehensive policy that ensures all students receive research-based instruction — and remove ineffective strategies like balanced literacy from Texas classrooms. Such a policy needs to include support for educators and accountability for change — along with giving districts access to high quality instructional materials and early screeners.

Success takes more than passing a law. The hardest work comes next.

That lesson is important for Texas and any other state seeking to improve reading instruction. States that devote serious attention to improving reading outcomes — Mississippi and Colorado, for example — excel in implementing change after a strong policy is signed into law. They focus on:

  • Insisting upon the use of research-based reading principles — the science of reading — in classroom instruction and in curriculum and materials;
  • Providing a culture of accountability to ensure change happens and an infrastructure of support so that educators are able to make the needed changes;
  • Ensuring schools of education and teacher training programs understand and embrace the science of reading so that new teachers are ready to teach reading well;
  • Working with parents and community leaders to communicate clearly about the changes and to champion effective reading strategies; and
  • Sticking to these fundamentals even when results do not improve overnight.

Research-based lessons from the magnolia state

Texas can learn from Mississippi the absolute importance of relentlessly embracing research in improving student reading. Mississippi’s 2013 Literacy-Based Promotion Act  requires all students receive instruction based on the science of reading. Classrooms must use research-based instruction and materials. And aspiring elementary school teachers must pass a foundational reading test before receiving a state license.

After legislators passed that law, state education officials, led by Carey Wright, the Mississippi superintendent of education from 2013-2022, and Kymyona Burk, then literacy director at the Mississippi Department of Education, got busy implementing the law.

They deployed reading coaches trained in science of reading to the lowest performing schools. Coaches were assigned to classrooms to work with teachers a few days a week for the entire school year, building relationships with instructors and providing consistent job-embedded learning. Research shows that hands-on professional development is most effective for educators. The state still follows that strategy.

The state similarly provided a training program, Language Essentials for Teachers of Reading and Spelling,– so that sitting educators could learn and practice the science of reading. Burk traveled the state to help teachers and principals understand LBPA’s requirements. Wright regularly reported on progress to the Legislature.

The strategies have paid off. In 2012, Mississippi ranked 49th out 50 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress in fourth grade reading. In 2022, Mississippi ranked 21st.

To be sure, Texas has attempted to embrace some research-backed practices. The Reading Academies legislators authorized in 2019 require K-3 teachers and principals to complete and pass an intensive course on the science of teaching reading. The Texas Education Agency projects that 132,000 teachers will have completed the academies by the end of this year.

But the implementation of the academies has been inconsistent. Districts can hire an outside expert to lead a comprehensive and immersive cohort with live coaching, or they can choose to implement it locally, hiring the cohort leaders themselves. The district may also choose an online-based model versus a more expensive and intensive in-person version. So, while districts have options to best implement given their context, that also creates wide variation in what content is delivered. It is easy for districts immersed in a balanced literacy approach to use the academies to reinforce that flawed philosophy, rather than help teachers and principals understand and implement the science of reading.

Providing a culture of accountability and infrastructure of support

A key element of Mississippi’s 2013 law is that all the state’s third graders must read at grade level by the end of their school year. If they do not, students cannot enter fourth grade, unless they pass the state’s reading exam during subsequent opportunities or receive an exemption.

This aspect of the law mirrors what Texas passed under then-Gov. George W. Bush in 1999. Texas, however, no longer requires third graders to pass a reading test before advancing to the next grade. Given that only 48% of Texas third graders met the state’s standards on Texas’ 2023 reading exam, legislators and education leaders should study how Mississippi has used this practice to good effect.

Of course, the decision to hold students back is never an easy one. That’s why Wright, Burk and their team worked hard to design — and communicate — a plan that would neither be punishment nor repetition. Instead, they insisted upon retention as intervention. Students who are held back have personalized, specific reading plans and supports designed to ensure the student can develop missing skills.

The state’s use of retention as an intervention has paid off. A recent Boston University study found that Mississippi students who repeated the third grade scored higher on the state reading exams in sixth grade than fellow students who barely passed the third-grade test.

Mississippi’s requirement that aspiring elementary school teachers pass a Foundation of Reading test before receiving a state license is another part of the state’s culture of accountability. The test not only impacts who gets credentialed, but the exam informs the state which schools lag in preparing candidates.

Accountability plays a key role as well in Colorado’s effort to improve reading instruction. The state’s Reading to Ensure Academic Development Act emphasizes the need for teachers to be proficient in the science of reading, channels resources to students below proficiency in the science of reading, and sets district reporting requirements to hold schools accountable.

For example, districts must provide teachers at least 45 hours of training in the science of reading. And starting in the 2024-2025 budget cycle, districts must show proof to the state that principals and administrators have passed the evidence-based training.

What’s more, districts must screen K-3 students to assess any reading deficits. They must also report to the state the number of students with significant reading deficiencies and their progress in reading.

In a report released in June, NCTQ found that only 27% of Texas’ 51 preparation programs adequately provide training in phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary and comprehension, and offer little-to-no instruction that contradicts research-based practices.

The organization also reported that 20 of the state’s 51 programs teach multiple techniques or approaches that contradict proven research. Only three schools —Houston Baptist University, Texas A&M-Texarkana, and Sul Ross State University — earned an A+ for their use of the science of reading.

As NCTQ concluded, better teacher preparation will lead to more students learning to effectively read.

Colorado certainly has focused on better preparation after state lawmakers insisted upon it. The state created strong teacher preparation standards, a rigorous licensure test, and assistance helping preparation programs instruct prospective teachers in the science of reading.

In Colorado, NCTQ found, teacher preparation programs used an average of 4.6 of those five elements. That was the highest score of any state and beat the national average of 2.6. NCTQ also reported that 11 of the state’s 16 schools of education received an A or A+ on the organization’s scorecard for effectively preparing educators to teach reading.

What’s more, Colorado requires all teacher preparation programs meet state standards before becoming fully licensed. Otherwise, the State Board of Education will sanction the program until its reading coursework improves.

Texas and other states can learn from this model. NCTQ found that while Texas requires a licensure test for reading instructors, it recommends that the state requires pre-K through fifth-grade teachers pass a licensure test that aligns with scientifically-based reading instruction. The organization also recommends the state publish the passing rates for those tests.

Working with parents and community leaders to champion effective reading strategies

Here, too, Texas and others should learn from Colorado, Minnesota and Mississippi in giving parents the information and tools to effectively use their voice.

Colorado’s READ initiative calls upon schools to provide parents regular, recurring updates about the progress of interventions their students might receive. That kind of information matters. Parents need data before they can sound off.

In Minnesota, the National Parents Union organized across several groups to engage parents, business leaders and educators to push the state to adopt a science of reading approach. This summer, their efforts paid off when Gov. Tim Walz signed the READ Act, which requires the use of high-quality screeners, research-based curriculum, better information for parents and provides resources to train educators on the science of reading. Balanced literacy is pervasive in Minnesota classrooms, and reading scores fell sharply in the pandemic and have not recovered.

In Mississippi, Kymyona Burk and others within the state’s education department traveled the state to talk with educators and parents about what the law means for children and to clearly outline the roles and responsibilities for educators and parents. This focused on communications was intentional: to inform parents and teachers and to enlist them as champions of quality reading instruction.

Mississippi also benefited from the commitment of Jim Barksdale, a Mississippi native who previously served as Netscape’s CEO. His $100 million gift to create the Barksdale Reading Institute helped state leaders spread understanding about the importance of the science of reading.

To be sure, Texas students have champions like the Katy Literacy Coalition, which advocates for the science of reading in an affluent suburban district outside of Houston. Likewise, the Parent Shield organization that Trenace Dorsey-Hollins founded in Fort Worth is driving an important conversation in that city about reading instruction, especially in disadvantaged communities. The Fort Worth Education Partnership is working across the community to help parents understand precisely where their children stand in their reading proficiencies. But there is not a statewide advocate ensuring that Texas does this right for every child, in every classroom across the state.

Sticking to these fundamentals even if results don’t improve overnight

Scores on the 2022 National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam show that Colorado fourth graders dipped slightly lower than their results on the 2019 NAEP reading exam. That was not unusual. Most states declined. None showed an increase. Still, Colorado’s fourth graders scored significantly higher than the national average.

The state’s eighth grade reading scores were similar. They slightly declined for Colorado eighth graders, as they did in many states. Still, Colorado eighth graders scored higher than the national average.

Mississippi’s results tell a similar story for the state’s fourth graders. Their scores beat the national average, even though they declined from the 2019 NAEP reading exam. And those fourth-grade scores continued a longer upward trajectory. The fourth-grade performance in 2022 showed an increase of eight points from 2011.

The good news is that Brown University researchers found that South Carolina, Iowa, Mississippi and Tennessee have now recovered from or exceeded COVID-related declines in reading. Most other states did not experience that same progress. The improvements were attributed to each state’s focus on improved reading instruction as well as a faster return to in-person learning.

The lesson for Texans — and anyone in a state taking on this work — is that progress takes time.  And sometimes it is uneven. It takes persistence for all of the needed changes to line up in ways that change student outcomes.

Success requires committing to the research-based approach to reading, unequivocally. All ideas are not good ones when it comes to teaching reading, and it matters to say that out loud. There are many open questions in education, but how to best teach reading is mercifully not one of them. Education has no shortage of fads and shiny new things, implemented poorly, that seasoned educators can just ignore or wait out. The science of reading can’t be one.

Texas is poised to make an incredible impact on its young people if it figures out how to teach reading consistently well. Nearly 6 million students are enrolled in Texas public schools — about 60% of those children are economically disadvantaged and nearly 22% are English language learners.

Creating 6 million strong readers means giving 6 million children the ability to learn and navigate their futures.